Nick Flynn was working at a Boston homeless shelter when his father, Jonathan Flynn, came in looking for a place to stay. Nick was raised by his mother and had little contact with his father except for some letters explaining that he would soon be recognized as one of the three greatest writers in American history. Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, has been adapted for the screen by director Paul Weitz, whose films often explore the relationships between fathers and sons (“About a Boy,” “In Good Company,” “American Pie”).
Paul Dano plays Nick, a young man who has some good instincts and some talent. He is worse than directionless — he is stuck. His mother (Julianne Moore) has died and he has no place to go. He moves into a strip club-turned apartment that is barely more than a squat, selected over the other candidates because he has no family who might come in for an extended stay. He takes the job at the homeless shelter because it is the first opportunity he hears of. He is not unsympathetic but he is distant and untrained. When a resident needs a new pair of pants Nick turns to one of the more experienced aides to ask what size. The aide says simply, “Ask him.” Nick begins to see — as we do — the artificiality of the denial-based distance we maintain from people we think might ask more from us than we can give or might make us think about how fragile our support system can be. When his father (Robert De Niro) shows up in the line of people needing a bed, Nick has so many conflicting feelings he has to go numb — on his own and with some chemical assistance. He wants to love his father and he wants his father to love him. He wants to care for him but is afraid of not being able to — we learn more about why later in the story. He is not prepared to acknowledge how much he wants to be like his father (in following his dream of being a writer) and does not want to be like him (unable to finish his story). We hear their competing versions of the story but we know, as Nick does, that both are coming from him.
De Niro has one of his best roles as a man wavering between fierce pride and grandiosity. Jonathan is a man of large gestures and unspeakably selfish behavior. De Niro keeps him human without compromising by trying to make him more sympathetic. Ultimately, it is Jonathan’s lack of empathy that allows him to finally if briefly provide fatherly support and guidance in telling Nick an important truth that frees him from the past and provides direction for the future.
Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, bigoted comments, explicit sexual references and situations, substance abuse including alcohol and drugs, and brief nudity.
Family discussion: What did Nick learn from working in the shelter? From Denise? What or who does the title refer to?
If you like this, try: “Joe Gould’s Secret” and the memoir by Nick Flynn